256. Telegram From the Embassy in Panama to the Department of State1

352. Please Pass to White House for Hamilton Jordan. Subj: Iran—Panamanian Initiatives. Refs: A) Jordan-Moss Telecon Jan 13;2 B) State 105883

1. (S—Entire text)

2. Torrijos called several times while I was on the phone with Hamilton Jordan and sent an airplane to take me to his mountain retreat at Coclecito. I arrived there at about 3:15 p.m., and our meeting lasted for about 6 hours. Present were Torrijos, Gabriel Lewis, Panama’s UN Amb Jorge Illueca, and Marcel Salamin. I translated Pres Carter’s message to Pres Royo and Gen Torrijos,4 relayed through Hamilton Jordan, and our latest Security Council proposal (Ref B). We discussed each document several times, and Salamin took copious notes.

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3. The first reaction of the Panamanians seemed to be an expression of clear pique over not having been involved in the action. They said essentially that the USG was asking Panama to let us follow our game plan entirely without taking Panama into consideration, making Panama look like a U.S. instrument. My argument that our proposal included their idea was only partially convincing. Torrijos said that we seemed to be saying, in effect: “be good boys, relax and leave things to us.”

4. Torrijos said that it was important that Waldheim portray our proposal as having been based upon, or at least strongly affected by, the Panamanian initiatives with Iran. Otherwise, he said, Panama’s future bargaining position and credibility would be undermined, making Panama less useful in trying to find a solution.

5. Salamin said that Ghotbzadeh had made it clear during their meetings that he wanted the hostages out of the country prior to the Presidential elections. He also said that Ghotbzadeh did not really want the return of the Shah to Iran but just to use the issue of the Shah.

6. Salamin also described a rather ingenious conspiracy theory advanced by Ghotbzadeh: that the Shah, Nixon, Kissinger, and David Rockefeller had engineered the takeover of the U.S. Embassy by fanatical students to destabilize Iran under Khomeini. The students, said Ghotbzadeh, are right-wing fanatics whose actions were designed to embarrass Khomeini and force him to take an even more radical posture than they. Nevertheless, Khomeini has infiltrated his own students into the leadership and can now control events.

7. After a lengthy discussion on events, Torrijos dictated what he described as a “note verbale to President Carter,” which Salamin wrote down. Some of it is couched in Torrijos’s biblical style, for which I include authorized interpretations. The others present agreed with it and made some contributions to its composition. Translation follows:

A) The concessions were given away through a channel which is not very agreeable to the Iranians. The proposal is a good one; if it had been advanced after the proper groundwork it would be optimum. (Comment: the concessions referred to are the recognition of the right to extradition and the appointment of an international commission of inquiry. The Panamanians obviously feel that they would have been a more acceptable channel to use than Waldheim.)

B) The situation is very fluid and the ability to react to it is slow. (Comment: The USG is not able to move quickly enough to take advantage of shifting events in Iran.)

C) A vote of confidence does not require giving a blank check; the fate of the prisoner is determined by the jailer; it is unpleasant to us that we have to keep swearing the oath every day. (Comment: These [Page 607] are three somewhat interconnected thoughts. The first is that the Panamanians want to be given a vote of confidence by us to help out with the situation and that we do not run a great risk in giving it to them. The second one is that the Shah is here and they must have some say in determining what is to be done with him. The third expresses irritation that there should be any doubt of Torrijos’s word that he will not deliver the Shah to Iran; he says that his word, once given, is kept forever and that he has never let us down and will not do so.)

D) You have not been able to take advantage of carrying out a plan on two levels. We believe that if you give us certain tools, that in a conversation with Ghotbzadeh it is possible that we will be able to program the countdown between now and Jan 25 which will culminate in the freeing of the hostages.

E) Our team will lay low until we are sure that we are not going to do something to make us look ridiculous. As a matter of principle, we do not go to parties when we are not invited. We went to the party in Tehran on account of the insistent invitation of the other side.

F) If there is no coordination, instead of shooting at the target, we are just firing blanks into the air. (Comment: This point was originally formulated in a different way, then changed so as not to frighten us or give offense. It originally stated that if there is no coordination, each party will have to be free to decide what to do in its own best interests. Such a thought, obviously, is somewhat inconsistent with the previous point in para E. Throughout the conversation, there was a certain ambivalence in the Panamanian attitude as they said, on the one hand, that the hostages are U.S. citizens and therefore they have to respect our desires in dealing with the situation, and, on the other hand, the strong feeling that they are partners because of having taken in the Shah, that the Shah’s presence represents a certain danger to Panama, and that they have the right to a piece of the action whether we give it to them or not.)

G) Any statements on the part of the Shah against Pres Carter will get him a one-way ticket to Tehran. (Comment: this is not a threat to return the Shah, but it means that the Panamanians might so threaten the Shah if he ever spoke up and made statements damaging to Pres Carter.)

H) You should not impose time limits on little people because they react with a form of dignity which is unpredictable and irrational. Besides, in the case of the Iranians, when they die they go directly to heaven. Don’t corner your adversary without leaving him a way out. (Comment: this point is simply a further expression of frustration that the USG passed its proposal through Waldheim without previously having negotiated it with the Iranians.)

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I) Up until now, your attitude has been measured and responsible. You must continue in the same way. (Comment: this point gives recognition to the tremendous pressure which Pres Carter is subjected to because of the hostages’ having remained in captivity for over 70 days.)

J) In order to save their countries and also because of their own electoral objectives, both leaders need each other. (Comment: based on the reports by Salamin and Romulo Escobar Bethancourt, Torrijos believes that Ghotbzadeh wants to come to terms with the United States and to end the conflict with us brought on by the hostage situation. He says that Ghotbzadeh feels hard-pressed because of internal and external threats, and sees a satisfactory solution of the difficulties with the United States as indispensable to his own political future.)

8. I met with Pres Royo at 9:00 this morning and reviewed the same ground with him. Royo said that it was important that the United States and Panama coordinate their actions and felt that the same team which went to Florida last weekend (Salamin, Lewis, Illueca) should go to Washington to work out details. In particular, Royo said, Panama was faced with the need to respond to the GOI’s demand for the arrest of the Shah and the extradition request. He said that he was convinced that Ghotbzadeh needed a “face-saving device” and wanted the hostages to be freed, and that Panama could help in this effort.

9. Recommendations: the Panamanians feel that they have a useful and efficient channel with Iran. They have considered all along that the Shah’s presence in their country obliges them, for reasons of self-protection as well as their prestige in the world, to deal with Iran. We were partially successful for a time in getting the Panamanians to stay in the background and let us carry our own initiatives forward. As recent events have shown, however, it is unrealistic to expect the Panamanians to remain inactive. If it is important that Panamanian actions and initiatives be programmed to coordinate with ours, I would recommend inviting Royo and Torrijos to send GOP representatives to Washington immediately, to draw up a detailed plan of action which would give the Panamanians a useful and substantive role. The advantage of such course of action is that it would give us a measure of control over what the Panamanians say and do in response to Iranian demands for the Shah’s arrest and extradition.5 It will not satisfy the Panamanians simply to tell them that we will keep them closely informed, and then [Page 609] to inform them of what we have done after the fact, even though this is done quickly.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870108–1025. Secret; Flash; Nodis.
  2. Not found.
  3. In telegram 10588 to Panama City, January 13, the Department transmitted the text of a document given to Waldheim on December 12. According to the document, the Security Council would 1) adopt a resolution recognizing “the legitimate right of the Government of Iran to seek the extradition of the former Shah and the return of any national assets of Iran improperly removed from Iran” and 2) establish a committee to investigate crimes by the previous Iranian regime that would report its findings to the Secretary General. Simultaneously, the Iranian authorities would release the American hostages in Tehran and ensure their safe departure. The Department directed the Ambassador to use the text, in addition to instructions already provided over secure phone, in a background briefing for the Panamanians. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P870108-1032)
  4. See Document 255.
  5. In telegram 678 from Panama City, January 23, Moss reported that Royo, with Torrijos’s concurrence, planned to send the Government of Iran a cable on January 24 which communicated Panama’s agreement to receive a formal extradition request as well as assurances the Shah would not be handed over. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 60, Panama: 6/79–1/80) No record of a meeting in Washington between Panamanian and U.S. officials on the subject of the Shah has been found.